Yoenis Cespedes

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Mets

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USA TODAY

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Mets

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

New York Mets

2018 record: 77-85, 4th in NL East

Offseason additions: Robinson Cano, Wilson Ramos, Edwin Diaz, J.D. Davis, Jeurys Familia, Jed Lowrie, Adeiny Hechavarria, Keon Broxton, Justin Wilson, Luis Avilan, Hector Santiago, Arismendy Alcantara, Rajai Davis, Carlos Gomez

Offseason departures: David Wright, Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Wilmer Flores, Jerry Blevins, Jose Reyes, Austin Jackson, A.J. Ramos, Jose Lobaton, Kevin Plawecki 

X-factor: Noah Syndergaard

This Mets team got a whole lot better this winter, but they will still need to lean heavily on the guys they already had in-house prior to the offseason. Syndergaard is chief among them.

When healthy, Thor is one of the best pitchers in baseball, capable of hitting triple digits with his fastball to pair with a wicked slider in the low-90s. The problem is, Syndergaard hasn't been all that healthy lately. He's pitched just 184.2 innings over the last two seasons and made only 25 starts a year ago. 

It seems like it's been eons since the Mets pitching staff overwhelmed the Cubs in the 2015 NLCS. All those young aces haven't been healthy all at the same time since then, plus the Mets broke up the group when they dealt away Matt Harvey last year.

The 2019 Mets have the potential to be very good, but it's hard to see them keeping up with the rest of the top teams in the powerhouse NL East unless both Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom are healthy all year.

Projected lineup

1. Brandon Nimmo - CF
2. Jeff McNeil - LF
3. Robinson Cano - 2B
4. Wilson Ramos - C
5. Michael Conforto - RF
6. J.D. Davis - 3B
7. Dominic Smith - 1B
8. Amed Rosario - SS

Projected rotation

1. Jacob deGrom
2. Noah Syndergaard
3. Steven Matz
4. Zack Wheeler
5. Jason Vargas

Outlook

There was a strong case to crown the Mets the winners of the offseason before the Phillies added Bryce Harper a couple weeks ago. Who knows how it will all play out, but new GM Brodie Van Wagenen has put together a very good team on paper that is significantly better than the roster that surprisingly hung around the .500 mark a year ago.

Adding Cano and Diaz were the huge splashes, but Ramos and Lowrie are steady contributors, bringing back former closer Familia was a nice move and adding depth guys (Wilson, Broxton, Hechavarria, Avilan, Rajai Davis, Gomez, etc.) were key. 

But their most underrated acquisition might just be infielder J.D. Davis, a slugger whom they acquired from the Astros in a January trade. At the moment, it appears he has the inside track to be the Mets' Opening Day starter at third base while Todd Frazier and Lowrie are hurt. Davis turns 26 in April and hit .342/.406/.583 (.988 OPS) with 17 homers and 81 RBI in just 85 Triple-A games last year in the Houston farm system.

Between Davis and a pair of power-hitting first base prospects (Dominic Smith, Pete Alonso), the Mets have some young offensive talent ready for the big leagues, plus Nimmo and McNeil — who enjoyed breakouts in 2018. 

If the Mets are goin to keep pace with the rest of their division, they're going to need depth and it looks like they have it in spades right now. They have three quality big-league catchers with solid resumes (Ramos plus Travis d'Arnaud and Devin Mesoraco) plus Juan Lagares, who might be their best defensive outfielder. 

Once Frazier and Lowrie return shortly after Opening Day and Yoenis Cespedes follows sometime around midseason, this could be a very, very good lineup. Just think what this offense might look like if 23-year-old Rosario finally puts it all together and shows why he was a consenus Top 10 MLB prospect prior to the 2017 campaign.

However, there are still a ton of question marks with this team that are holding it back right now. Is this the year Conforto takes that next step into stardom? Will Cano and Ramos stay healthy (and can Lowrie avoid further injury when he returns)? How much will Cespedes produce in 2019? Is Nimmo the guy that put up a Joey Votto-esque .450 OBP and walked more than he struck out in August and September or is he more like the guy who posted a .346 OBP with 74 whiffs in 50 games in June and July?

This pitching staff is also very top-heavy. After deGrom and Syndergaard in the rotation and Diaz and Familia in the bullpen, nobody knows quite what the Mets will get from the rest of their arms. Wheeler and Matz enjoyed bounceback seasons a year ago, but they still need to prove their checkered injury histories are in the rearview mirror.

There's more than enough talent on this team to compete, but will they have enough to compete with the likes of the Phillies, Braves and Nationals? I'm not betting on it, but hey, I've been wrong before (just once, though, and it was back in my high school days).

Prediction: 4th in NL East, a few games behind in the Wild-Card race

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

The Cubs can’t send Chili Davis out to face Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but team president Theo Epstein believes his presence will help the franchise’s young hitters next October.

Those pronounced playoff struggles against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — on top of the way the New York Mets power pitchers overwhelmed the Cubs during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep — led to a major shakeup of Joe Maddon’s coaching staff.

Firing hitting coach John Mallee isn’t really about what he didn’t do, because he worked nonstop across the last three years, overseeing an offense that actually scored more runs this season than the 2016 World Series team.

It’s more the instant credibility that Davis brings as a switch-hitter who made three All-Star teams and earned World Series rings with the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the last New York Yankees dynasty (1998-99).

Epstein initially brought Davis into the Boston Red Sox organization, hiring him as an overqualified hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the last season before sweeping changes would hit Fenway Park.

Davis spent the next six years as the big-league hitting coach for the Oakland A’s and Red Sox, working with players like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

“Chili’s well-established as one of the very best hitting coaches in the game,” Epstein said after Thursday’s staff announcements. “His philosophy and approach happened to fit with what we hope will be the next step for many of our hitters. We talked after the season about hoping to get better with situational hitting, with our two-strike approach, with using the whole field, with having competitive, team-based at-bats.

“That happens to be Chili’s core philosophy — hitting line drives to the middle of the field. Your line drives will turn into home runs. He’s excellent at teaching a two-strike approach and teaching situational hitting. He’s really good at helping to get hitters to understand when an elite pitcher’s on his game, you have to sometimes take what he gives you, and have an adjustable swing, an adjustable approach for those situations.

“He’s got the gravitas of a 19-year career, 350 homers, over 1,300 RBIs. That combined with his excellent manner and ability to communicate with players makes him a really impactful figure.”

Mallee — who grew up as the son of a Chicago cop and graduated from Mount Carmel High School — brought stability to a position that used to have the job security of the drummer for Spinal Tap.

The Cubs wanted Mallee’s data-driven approach and the ability to explain heat maps and cold zones and how pitchers would attack each at-bat. Mallee also gave the Cubs a very accurate scouting report on Dexter Fowler before making that January 2015 trade with the Houston Astros.

During Mallee’s tenure, Kris Bryant became the fourth player in major-league history to be named MVP the season after winning Rookie of the Year honors. Ian Happ kept making enough adjustments to hit 24 home runs during his rookie season (with only 26 games of experience at Triple-A Iowa). Javier Baez made great strides this year — 23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS — before an 0-for-20 tailspin to start the playoffs.

In one way, the Cubs even endorsed Mallee’s methods by promoting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines to work with Davis as the assistant hitting coach. Mallee and Haines have a Miami connection after working in the Marlins organization.

“I would like to thank the Chicago Cubs for the amazing opportunity to be part of a great tradition and organization for the last three years,” Mallee wrote in a statement. “I left a great Houston Astros organization to be closer to home with my family and to help my hometown team win a World Series.

“We did that. I have no regrets and stand by my work. I wish nothing but the best for the Cubs organization and all the amazing people I met along the way, especially my hitters. See you from across the field.”

When the Cubs talk up their culture and the first-class organization they’ve built, there’s also an unspoken, underlying coldness to it all, even while making justifiable decisions. The Cubs publicly hailed Ricky Renteria basically up to the moment Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and someone better came along.

Whether or not that will always be sustainable, Davis does have a great resume, no doubt. The Cubs are hoping Davis can help salvage the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward and rewire an offense that ranked last in batting average (.168) and on-base percentage (.240) among the 10-team playoff field. Outside of that unforgettable 9-8 thriller at Nationals Park, the Cubs scored 16 runs in nine postseason games.

“John Mallee is an outstanding hitting coach and we would not be in the position we’re in now with rings on our finger without him,” Epstein said. “Chili just happens to be, in our opinion, uniquely qualified for this group, at this moment in time, to help us get to the next level.”